The Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced decision to, in effect, ban the construction of traditional coal-fired power plants in the United States is a non-solution to a hypothetical problem, enacted upon a legal basis that is shaky and an economic basis that is nonexistent. The cost-benefit analysis is almost entirely one-sided: The costs will be very high, and the benefits the EPA hopes to secure will remain out of reach.
The EPA is demanding that new U.S. plants that will use coal to generate electricity must meet standards that today are met by no commercial coal-fired plant operating anywhere in the world. There are, however, two plants coming on line — one in Saskatchewan, one in Mississippi — that incorporate new technology designed to capture enough carbon dioxide to satisfy the EPA demands. Whether that new technology will be effective in practice remains to be seen; whether it will be both effective and cost-effective is a much more important and complex question, one that the EPA has no genuine interest in contemplating.
That is a problem, inasmuch as the Clean Air Act requires that the EPA perform a cost-benefit analysis of new rules. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy not only says that the agency has conducted such an analysis but goes on to characterize it as “wonderful,” and we are indeed filled with a sense of wonder at her proclamation, though perhaps not in the way she intended.
The costs remain a mystery. The industry expects them to be high, but how high is anybody’s guess: The CO2-capture technology that the EPA expects to become standard as a result of its new mandate is, as noted, not currently in commercial use. There is no demand in the market for it, and its costs can therefore be estimated on a wild-guess basis at best.
It is easier to estimate the benefits: They will be nonexistent. Even if we assume that the general thrust of the case for anthropogenic global warming is accurate (an assumption that requires setting aside the recent failure of climate-change models and the less confident scientific consensus as to the meaning of recent data), the fact remains that global warming is, if it is anything at all, global. Local controls on U.S. power plants, even if they are draconian, will have little impact on the overall atmospheric composition of the planet and its effect on global temperatures.
Carbon dioxide is only one greenhouse gas among many, and the United States is not the world’s largest producer of it. The United States, in fact, produces about 15 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions, and U.S. power plants are responsible only for about 33 percent of that 15 percent. And the new rule applies only to newly constructed plants, though the EPA has signaled that it intends to demand the retrofitting of existing plants in the future.
What all this means is that even if the EPA were wildly successful in its implementation of the new standards, it still would not achieve any substantial reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions. It is equally likely, if not more, that it will achieve an increase instead: Being a fungible commodity, the coal not consumed by U.S. generators will find its way to China, India, and the rest of the developing world, where it will be consumed in high-pollution plants that make those in the United States look as pure as vestal virgins by comparison.
So: Costs unknown, benefits negligible. “Wonderful,” indeed.
No doubt surviving members of the 88th Congress, which passed the Clean Air Act, are filled with a similar sense of wonder that their law is being used to police carbon dioxide emissions, an outcome the legislators did not intend. The legal basis for declaring carbon dioxide a “pollutant” under the act is questionable at best, as is the EPA’s rationale for picking and choosing what sorts of emitters will be subject to its new rules. If you would like a preview of what medicine is going to look like under Obamacare, consider the high-handed, letter-of-the-law-be-damned approach of the EPA and the courts that have enabled it.
The new rule may prove wonderful for the manufacturers of the capture technology that will effectively be mandated. As with the case of Solyndra et al., this maneuver is not about producing environmental benefits but about creating markets for politically favored firms and industries. But even those cronies may fare less well than they expect to.
The Obama administration, despite its obvious desire, has not yet been successful in strangling the natural-gas renaissance that is changing the face of the American energy industry. Though coal remains the largest single source of electricity, it already has been falling out of favor with those building new generating capacity, because natural gas is cheaper and plentiful. It is also less damaging to the environment, contra the ill-informed hysteria about the gas-extraction technique known as fracking. But the United States has a complex economy, and there is no single “right” source for fuel. Left to its own devices, the industry probably will move toward natural gas and away from coal, but coal will remain an important part of the picture for the foreseeable future.
In 2012, Barack Obama became the first major-party presidential candidate since statehood to fail to win in a single county of West Virginia. He lost the statewide vote by a substantial margin, with two out of three against him. The people of West Virginia rightly appreciated that their best-known commodity is the target of a regulatory jihad by the White House that has no environmental or economic justification.
The real motive here is the administration’s messianic pretentions, its belief that its bureaucrats and managers are more humane and more intelligent than the producers and consumers over whom they reign, and that they have been chosen to lead the United States into a future that is relatively free of such relics of the Industrial Revolution as coal-fired power plants and petroleum products. Unhappily for them, there is a wide gulf between social engineering and real engineering, and the most impressive products the green-energy revolution has delivered so far are a couple of nifty electric motorcycles — which are recharged by a power grid that gets 40 percent of its juice from coal.
A functioning modern society requires reliable electricity. A modern industrial economy requires affordable electricity. To impose incalculable costs on electricity generation in exchange for ideological satisfaction with no real-world environmental benefit is the sign of an agency that has put its own political agenda ahead of the national interest, playing fast and loose with the law in the process. The EPA is a menace, and Congress should put it on a leash.
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This article was written by the editors of the National Review.